Sunday, May 20, 2018

Isaiah 6.1-8: Scale

Isaiah's call story (Isaiah 6:1-8, Trinity B) is full of imagery: seraphim, thrones, burning coals. Artists like Mark Chagall have depicted the call in many ways. The call forms the center portion of Chagall's portrait of the prophet. The seraphim touches the burning coal to Isaiah's lips.
Marc Chagall. The Prophet Isaiah. 1968. Musee Marc Chagall, Nice, France.
Surely that is a dramatic moment, but the artist has put us in a position outside the action. We are spectators watching what happens at a distance. The seraphim is roughly human sized, and the collection of background figures remove the sense of reality. The text, however, gives us a very definite scale of the action. And it isn't this.

The text tells us that the Lord is sitting on a throne and the royal robe is so immense that the hem...just the hem...fills the Temple. The Temple is filled by the hem of the robe. There is no sense of that scale in Chagall's work. which has Isaiah as the largest figure in the composition. Everything is scaled to human proportions.

The difference is important because the scale indicated by the text puts human beings directly in front of the vastness and power of God. And in the face of the hugeness of God, humans understand that they are small. Consider the difference between watching a movie at a movie theater and watching it on a computer. The shipwreck, the space travel, the desert...all of them are more impressive, more immersive, on a theater screen than on a laptop. The difference is the scale of the scene in relation to human beings.

To give you a sense of what a difference scale makes, compare the viewpoint of Chagall's Isaiah with the painting below. The story it illustrates also involves the hem of a garment hem and a touch. It is the artist's point of view and the scale of the painting compared to the viewer that makes us feel small, low, and vulnerable. That helps us understand just how low and vulnerable the woman who sought healing was willing to make herself.
Daniel Cariola. Encounter. 2016. Encounter Chapel, Magdala (Migdal), Israel.
The photo below offers a glimpse of scale from the natural world. Here the Aurora Borealis (Nothern Lights) dance above the Lofoten Islands in Norway. The lights of the town are bright (and probably a little brighter here than they would normally be in order to have a long exposure for the sky), but next to the vastness of the aurora...
Alex Conu. Northern Lights Above Lofoten. 2015. Astronomy Picture of the Day, June 26, 2016.

For additional thoughts on scale, see this week's Facebook post. 
For thoughts on Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), click here.
For Facebook thoughts on the call of Isaiah, click here.

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